Somewhere in the midst of “Toy Head,” a new song by The Church from their latest album, I am struck how lead singer and bassist Steve Kilbey has really gotten into his zone.
It’s kind of a song about finding yourself, which is interesting given that the man in the center of it seems to be the most together man ever to step on stage at the 9:30 Club, where The Church performed for a very nearly sold-out audience Monday night.
Kilbey is calm, gracious and sharply self-aware. As he goes into the final few minutes of “Toy Head,” his bass reverberates with a distinctive psychedelic vibe that belies his own clipped, professional demeanor. He stands still, hypnotized into the zone of the music as he winds the song down.
But when Kilbey walks across the stage, he strides with swagger — like a rock god from distant shores who may be slumming in the States. The Australian quartet, which Kilbey cofounded with guitarist Peter Koppes, falls into a groove around him, along with a fifth touring member, as they come together for the next song, “Vanishing Man,” a single also from the new album, Further/Deeper, released in October of last year.
The Church extended their set beyond their latest, and 25th album, however, to include songs that were more familiar to Americans. Kilbey introduced “Metropolis” from sixth studio album Gold Afternoon Fix, as The Church’s “last hit” — some 25 years ago. The utterly transfixed crowd booed the suggestion that The Church had not released “a hit” within the last 25 years, but Kilbey good-naturedly assured us that it was okay to be neglected by commercial radio.
The band also revisited their middle-period with “Sealine” from 13th album Forget Yourself. As Kilbey sings of “not following you to the sealine,” he does an accompanying dance up to the front of stage. Free of his bass, he has the tendency to emote his lyrics with his free hand.
He continues to emphasize his points with a sweep of his hand or a thrust of his arm during “The Disillusionist,” from seventh album Priest=Aura and perhaps one of the songs that best captures The Church in all of its psychedelic glory. It’s almost spoken-word tempo allows Kilbey to put a stamp on the rhymes while Koppes and company lapse into a mannered haziness. It creates a peaceful, lazy scene that contrasts to The Church’s usually tighter, faster numbers.
Of course, before The Church hit their encore, they give the audience their best-known number, “Under the Milky Way,” from 1988’s Starfish. Kilbey has said that he wrote the song accidentally, with an ex-girlfriend as it happens, but I suspect one of the reasons that the song endures so well is because it very simply captures, without any pressures, all of the things that make The Church great. The unrushed melodies, the singer’s pleasant voice, the lyrics about finding yourself or a place — all simply and beautifully arranged.
The Church play a half a dozen more shows in their U.S. tour in support of Further/Deeper before going to SXSW in Austin, Texas. Go see them now while they are in your backyard, in fine shape, supporting a strong album!
In a way it’s funny, because I’ve been tracking the prevailing trend toward psych and neo-psych bands among new groups, such as those you may see at SXSW, and I’ve occasionally struggled to identify who exactly is the model for their sound. Well, I need struggle no longer; The Church is the band those young guns are trying to emulate. And they couldn’t have picked a better model.